Remembering May 11, 1985: There is a scarf

alex flett

By Andrew Flett

There is a scarf in my loft.

I know it’s there because I occasionally see it laying at the top of a box of assorted football paraphernalia; old programmes, City Gents and a number of Rothmans Football Year Books from the 1980s.

That scarf and I used to go everywhere together.

It’s a Bradford City scarf. One of those white woolen ones with a repeated pattern of a single amber stripe sandwiched between two claret ones. You might know the type I’m talking about as they do seem to be slowly reappearing around Valley Parade these days.

But my Bradford City scarf is far from new. I’ve owned it since the summer of 1984. I can’t recall where I bought it from. Possibly Carters sports shop in Bradford or maybe from one of the old blokes in flat caps who used to sell programmes and other bits and pieces from a small wooden shed opposite the entrance to the Main Stand at Valley Parade.

I really liked my scarf. But don’t get me wrong. I’ve got claret and amber blood flowing through my veins and have always been immensely proud of our iconic club colours. Yet I will admit to a guilty pleasure. I think back with fond memories of my Bradford City heroes playing in all white (or at least when the shirt was predominantly all white). My first season 1975/76 saw City play in all white, a pattern that was repeated frequently until the mid-1980s. Who remembers the classic white strip with claret and amber Admiral edging or the Toy City shirt for example?

Bradford City played in all-white for the 1984/85 season. Hence my decision, I guess, to purchase the ‘latest’ City scarf. I had just turned 22 years of age in the summer of 1984. Was holding down a safe if somewhat unspectacular job in a bank in Bradford and with few personal commitments had relatively large amounts of disposable income.

For reasons I can no longer remember, three friends and I decided to attend as many matches of the 1984/85 season as we could both home and away. Perhaps it was because City had finished the previous season in a creditable seventh place. Perhaps it was because Trevor Cherry and Terry Yorath had put the finishing touches to an exciting looking squad by signing the experienced Dave Evans and the unknown and inexperienced John Hendrie, both on free transfers.

The squad was an exciting blend of exuberant and fearless youth, mixed with a steely hard edge provided by a number of journeymen professionals who knew what it took to survive and thrive in the lower reaches of the Football League. A small squad that would go down in City folklore: McManus, Abbott, Withe, McCall, Jackson, Evans, Hendrie, Hawley, Campbell, Singleton, Ellis, Goodman, Cherry, Clegg.

You are all my heroes.

We just decided to do it. One of us had a beaten up motor (some sort of Vauxhall I think) and for the next nine months the four of us, with my white City scarf flying proudly alongside the car from a slightly ajar window, travelled around much of the country.

My scarf went everywhere with me. Around my neck in the broiling hot early fixtures of August, keeping me warm during the freezing cold midweek November evening kick-offs at Valley Parade all the way to the end of the season and Peter Jackson proudly holding aloft the Canon Football League Division Three trophy almost within touching distance from where my scarf and I were standing in the Paddock of the Main Stand at Valley Parade.

I loved my scarf. Every match; north, south, east and west, League Cup, FA Cup, pitch invasion and hooligan evasion. We went everywhere together. And on each and every occasion my scarf and I were part of a travelling army of City supporters who out-sang the home fans at every venue. Long before many of you dear readers were born it was already the ‘Bradford Boys making all the noise’.

I saw it all. Me and my scarf. Inseparable.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It truly was a swashbuckling season. Throughout the campaign the attitude of the players had been magnificent. Something that was attributed to the team spirit and camaraderie that existed in the dressing room and which extended into the players private and social lives. In the main, these were not just teammates but also friends with many socialising outside of the confines of the club. This was a group of players who genuinely liked each other both on and off the field.

Through this friendship there developed a chemistry that manifested itself in a team with boundless energy, strength of character and an almost limitless will to win. There were no superstars in the dressing room and certainly no prima donnas. The likes of Bobby Campbell and Greg Abbott would have made sure of that! For one season at least, the fans watched a team play football with genuine smiles on their faces – football at Bradford City was fun.

Looking back through the fog of over half a lifetime, season 1984/85 really did have a sense of being a time of innocence. Corporate hospitality was little more than a firm handshake from the Chairman on his way from the car park and a lukewarm pie and peas at half time. There was no internet, no mobile phones, no social media, no 24-hour rolling sports news, no multi-million pound TV deals, no £10,000 a week lower division footballers, no TalkSport shock-jocks….no prawn sandwiches. You could still stand on terracing. You could still smoke in the Main Stand.

I loved those innocent times. Watching City. Wearing my ever present white Bradford City scarf.

The club was small and unfashionable – a bread and butter set-up that most policy makers and decision takers in football took for granted assuming that those managing it, playing for it and supporting it would be content with their lot and have little or no ambition to try and reach for anything higher.

There might have been a rundown feel to the ground but there was an intimacy and friendliness about the place whether you were in the stands, in the club shop, the office or if you were meeting the young squad of players that Cherry and Yorath had assembled.

There were no airs and graces at Bradford City – you felt part of it – you felt you were part of a wider family.

And what better way for everyone connected to the club to celebrate the greatest season Bradford City had had in living memory than to be presented with the championship trophy before the final league match of the season against Lincoln City on May 11th 1985.

My scarf and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

A couple of days ago I went up into my loft and picked up my scarf. I honestly can’t remember how many years it has been since I last did that. I brought it down stairs. It looks the same as it did the last time I saw it. It feels the same as the day I last wore it around my neck. It still has the same stains and damage that I remember it having after the last time it was at a City match with me.

But my scarf doesn’t smell of smoke anymore.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

There was great excitement and anticipation around Bradford in the week leading up to the match against Lincoln City. The Telegraph and Argus ran a series of celebratory articles and the club was even featured on regional TV news programmes Look North and Calendar. Supporters had queued for tickets all week and a sell-out was eagerly anticipated.

News filtered through that the team would parade the championship trophy before kick-off and people were advised to get to the ground early to get the best vantage points. This was something I was accustomed to doing as I liked to stand in the same spot in the Paddock for every home match.

Paddock? Yes, a narrow standing area than ran the length of the Main Stand at pitch-side separated from the touchline by a four foot brick wall. At both ends of the Main Stand the Paddock extended up the side of the seated areas with standing positions here offering a good view of the pitch with limited chances of getting jostled. My prized position was in this elevated section at the end of the Main Stand closest to the Bradford End which City traditionally preferred to attack in the second half since they would then be playing towards their loudest supporters.

On May 11 I’d forgone my customary pre-match pint choosing instead to get my vantage point early. It was an enjoyable walk from the car along Midland Road towards the ground. The weather was dry and clear. A gusty wind tugged at your clothing. I tightened my scarf around my neck. Access to the Paddock was, I recall, via turnstiles along Valley Parade giving you access to the back of the Main Stand. Navigation was via a dimly lit narrow wooden corridor no more than three or four feet wide.

At intervals you could either turn into one of a small number of windowless communal toilets (a glorified trough against a wall) or alternatively down a further small corridor which either took you onto the benched seating of the stand or onto the two ends of the standing area – the Paddock. Even for matches with an average attendance the back of the main stand was a congestion ‘pinch-point’ and for the occasional ‘big’ matches meant that a visit to the toilet at half time was nigh-on impossible.

By 2.30pm everything was as it should be. My scarf and I are in our usual position. The same familiar faces are next to us. Roy, Barbara, Jeff. The man with the transistor radio permanently placed to his ear relaying other scores to us as he heard them. I never got round to asking him his name. Others with whom I was on nodding and small-talk terms.

I never stood next to any of these people ever again.

From this point memories become blurred. Instead of a running sequence of events things form into almost single snapshot images and emotions. At the time all is normal. All is right with the world. Innocent. I love my football team. We are great. We are winners. We are going up. Money is going to be spent in the summer to improve the ground. We’ve heard they are going to replace the roof on the Main Stand. Presentation. Lap of honour. ‘Thank you fans’ banner. I hold my white City scarf in the air. Kick off.

Ten minutes gone, “Bit of an anti-climax” are mutterings around me. Twenty minutes gone, “Should have paraded the bloody cup at the end of the match” was another comment. Thirty minutes gone, “Just enjoy the moment” was the consensus. 0-0.

I used to be a primary school teacher. One morning one of my pupils brought to school a series of interesting facts about the human body. “Sir” the little lad announced. “Did you know that over a seven year period every cell in your body is replaced? You are literally not the same person you were seven years ago.” I responded with, “Well what about your memories? They don’t change”. “They can fade away though” came the retort. “It happened to my Nan.”

The little lad was right. Holding my scarf in my hands 30 years on it really is the only tangible, object now linking me to that fateful day in May. Sometimes, I’m not even sure of my own memories.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

3.44pm and nearly half-time. A glance down to the far end of the Main Stand indicates that some ‘idiot’ has let off a smoke bomb. Thin grey smoke. It will soon clear. Back to the match. But someone close almost immediately makes the observation that the smoke is now black and thick. Play stops and we stand still waiting to see who will extinguish the small fire that we can see even from this far away.

No one comes.

Apart from large bonfires lit on Plot Night across Thorpe Edge I had never experienced a ‘real’ fire before. An inferno. Fire does not act like I thought it would. Smoke is supposed to rise upwards into the sky, flames move slowly and we are taught to move calmly and quietly towards the nearest exit.

On this occasion, for reasons future enquiries would determine, the thick choking fog rolled horizontally underneath the roof of the Main Stand, tumbling as it went. The flames seemed to take on the characteristics of a liquid, literally appearing to flow along the stand and underneath the roof swirling and changing direction as they went.

As I stood there the building in front of me was literally being devoured at walking pace. But what made me finally react was the heat. By the time half the stand had been engulfed, the heat was already causing the skin of my face to tighten and the hair on my head to tingle.

Time to leave.

You enter a bubble. Things move in slow motion. It’s a cliché but it’s also true. Thinking back I can’t remember any sound and I can’t recall what was happening to any individual around me. I knew I had to move. Quickly. So I did what I had been conditioned to do from following City all these years.

You exit the Paddock and the ground from the double door exits at the back of the Main Stand. So I shuffled into the narrow corridor at the back of the stand towards the closest set of double doors. Confusion. The corridor is packed. The doors is locked. You try and ease forward but others are already ahead of you. I take my white woolen Bradford City scarf and tightly press it to my nose and eyes to try and shield my face from the thick, acrid smoke.

Why is the crowd not moving?

I was no hero. I didn’t wait to pull others over the Paddock wall onto the pitch. I didn’t seek ways to fight the fire. An instinctive desire to escape was the only thing, I guess, on my mind. I know that I didn’t rationalise the situation I was in but chose to turn around and push others behind me out of the way before re-entering the Paddock probably only moments after I had left it.

The sight of the fire and the scorching heat still makes me shiver and the hairs on my arms rise. I don’t remember getting over the wall. The next thing I remember is standing on the pitch near the corner between the Kop and the Midland Road. I can’t remember what I saw from there. I can’t remember what I felt. Shut down.

A time of innocence. There was no internet, no mobile phones, no social media, no 24-hour rolling sports news, no multi-million pound TV deals, no £10,000 a week lower division footballers no TalkSport shock-jocks….no prawn sandwiches. A time when you made arrangements and simply trusted people to turn up. No texts saying “I’m on my way” or “Be there in five minutes”.

4.45pm. Saturday May 11, 1985. My Mum turns on Grandstand to check how City got on against Lincoln. But instead of the vidiprinter and Des Lynam purring into the camera she is met by a BBC special news programme describing what had occurred at Valley Parade. People were reported to have died. Many more were injured. A time of innocence? There was no internet, no mobile phones, and no social media.

I arrived home sometime after 5.30pm. Imagine.

I don’t remember the drive home. I took off my white woolen Bradford City scarf. Smoke-filled and stained. I have not worn the scarf since. Thirty years.

Life for me went on. Work on Monday. A cursory re-telling of events to friends and family who knew I was there. Wondering if those around me who had shared so many highs and lows in recent years had escaped unscathed. Trying to avoid the questions. No counselling. You just get on with things. I put my white woolen Bradford City scarf in a drawer.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Life for me went on. By September 1985 I had have moved to London to work and whilst family and friends remained I have not lived in Bradford since. A family of my own, a home in Essex. On average a dozen or so City matches a season – more if I can. A flexi-card which never seems to pay financially but a connection to Valley Parade that I can maintain in a way.

Until now May 11, 1985 has remained almost entirely personal to me. Nothing there to share even with my wife, my son, my daughter or my Southern friends. I’ve never attended the annual event in Centenary Square and I won’t get bullied into supporting growing attempts (well intentioned I’m sure) to ‘glorify’ things with some sort of branding for the so-called 56.

Please don’t ask me to wear the t-shirt or the hoodie. I won’t be forced to ‘Stand up for the 56’ or applaud in the 56th minute of a match. Please don’t tell me how to remember. I was there. I’ll support the BRI Burns Unit like I always have done. Quietly. Privately.

I feel blessed that I can regularly share my love of supporting Bradford City with my best friend Simeon, other good friends and most of all with my son Michael who may be a 21 year-old from Essex but who is as passionate a City supporter as I was all those years ago in May 1985.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Before the FA Cup quarter-final tie at Valley Parade against Reading, Michael and I walked round to look at the fire disaster memorial. A beautiful wreath had been placed on the black marble platform by Reading FC alongside other flowers and mementoes. A small group of supporters from both clubs reverently stood several yards away from the fascia.

With no hesitation I broke ranks and walked straight up to the memorial to stoop and read the card that had also been left. Michael’s sudden sharp intake of breath was obvious. He held back. I gestured for him to join me. I explained that this was not a shrine. It was a symbol of remembrance and reflection; something to be embraced not feared. Others in the crowd moved forward.

On April 25 I was at Valley Parade to support the team I love against Barnsley and to participate in the national minute’s silence that was observed at all football fixtures around the country. Will I be back in Bradford on May 11 2015 standing in Centenary Square for the first time in 29 years? Yes.

And my white woolen Bradford City scarf? Perhaps it’s time to wear it one last time.

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Categories: Opinion

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11 replies

  1. My dad died 4/5/85 a week before the fire I was 18 in the june that year. The first two weeks of that may took me years to get my head right. On monday I raised a glass or two to my dad who I have missed for 30 years and next manday I will remember the 56 and will be forever city till i die RIP

  2. A very Poignant article and one I can relate to been there myself. I agree you shouldnt have to do anything you dont want to do to remember but do whats personal to you. I dont really go in for the standing up that they do but I think the clap is a nice gesture from home and away fans.

    RIP 56

  3. Thank you Andrew for an incredibly emotive and heart felt reflection. Sometimes I have felt awkward about how I should remember the victims of the fire and like you I am also exiled down South. I went to the match with some mates and my dad who said the he might go into the kop or the main stand – i was in the kop. After the fire I remember going back to the car and waiting for my dad, because as you point out there really was no way of contacting anybody. I waited what seemed like an age and eventually my dad did turn the corner safe and sound. We both cried and hugged – the first time I could remember ever doing so with my old man – it was a complete outpouring of emotion.

    Heading back to University the following day I just felt completely numb. That feeling of sadness and disbelief remains with me and always will.

  4. Very touching words well written. I am a life long Leeds fan, I have always had friendly banter with my Bradford friends. That day they changed all of them. I remember sitting watching it on the TV and just crying. So sad. Rip the 56

  5. I’ve kept my story to myself for 30 years only my closest friends and family know , I too was in the stand just to the right of jacko lifting our cup, myself and my best mate eventually got over the wall it was manic to get over with the smoke was choking and boiling tar dropping on everyone . We managed to pull a old man over the wall but people fell on top of him I think his leg got broke at this point . We got him away from the heat which was getting unbearable, I can’t remember who these other lads were but we took our jackets off and used them as a stretcher then carried the man out and down past the BFD end to be met by the ambulances , at this point without knowing photos where taken and published the next morning. …….. I ran back into the ground to see a middle aged lady running from the fire her nylon jacket had melted around her back and her hair was on fire , I shouted to her stop but she carried on running , I managed to grab her and rip the jacket off then put the fire out on her head with my hands at this point I calmed her down , she was asking for her son , where’s my son , I said he will be safe , then from no where he appeared I think he was a off duty police man ,she said thank you to me . then I went back to see a small boy with his dad ,the dad through his son over the wall for me to catch we then got to safety as I couldn’t stand anymore of the heat , it was a terrible time which I’ve never forgot , my love and respect goes to all who perished that day and to all the family’s and friends.

    I live in morecambe now and have done for 15 years , but still travel to most games with our northwest supporters club . Love my club and love my city .

    Tim , C.T .I .D

  6. I was only 3 years old at the time so have no memories myself, but I know how different my life would have been without my big brother in it. I will always be thankful that he returned home that day.

  7. I was 5. My dad used to take me and my 3 older brothers to City most weeks. This week he was away with the kids from his youth club. I am so thankful to this day and it still brings a tear to my eyes every time I see or read about it.

    I will never be able to truly imagine how awful this must be still for anyone who witnessed it first hand or lost a loved one.

  8. My husband was there that day. Not because he is a big City fan but was proud. Of their play that season.
    I was in Saltaire, shopping with my two young children when I heard the news. I drove home in a blur and waited. There were no mobile phones, in those days we had a saying No news is good news. Eventually my beloved returned shaken and quiet, not like him. He had watched the fire from another stand, smelt the burning of more an wood. His frustration was palpabl, he wanted to help. He’s that guy who always helps. I’m so grateful that he was too far away. I know him, he was invincible then nothing could touch him. He’d have kept going back.
    We all do what we can in our own way and yes for some life goes on. I’m glad you survived to have a happy family life in Essex but equally grateful that my family life went on.
    My heart goes out to all the families of those who perished on what should have been just another grand day out.

    • Fantastic article, very reminiscent of my memories of the day. I was 15, there with my dad as I had been all season and watched the whole awful event unfold from the Kop. My dad took three years before he would attend a game. My mum saw it all on Grandstand in a shop window.

      My memories (and the sounds and smells) are as vivid today as they were back then.

      As time goes by, with fewer and fewer people who were actually there on the day I get more and more concerned at the ‘pressure’ to remember those who perished or were injured. I’m not a fan of memorabilia, tee shirts, flags, applause and stand up for the 56 but I will always have my private memories and thoughts with which to remember.

      Thanks for such a well written article that really sums up how I too feel as we reach 30 years since that fateful day.

      City til I die

  9. Andrew your story made me shed a tear, but I’m not sure why. Maybe it was because like you and many other people who were at valley parade on 11th may 1985, our stories are locked away in the past, created at a time when social media in the way we know it was non existent. Questioning ourselves over the years could all that happened really have happened in those 4 minutes. I used to tell myself I had got it wrong in my own head, until I saw the title of the book 4 minutes to hell – then I knew………. Sat in block c a minute before half time, my 4 year old nephew had fallen asleep on my knee, my dad had gone up to the back of the stand to help with counting the programme money – he did that on a Saturday with a bunch of other blokes. People became aware of smoke in the far corner of the stand, but the word was it’s just a smoke bomb it will clear in a minute. But it didn’t clear & the smoke was getting thicker. Im not sure at what point those of us in c block decided to move, but I was aware of a man I didn’t know urging me to move out of my seat & down the steps. Scooping my sleeping nephew I followed him. The problem was there was a big wooden fence to navigate followed by a wall, which from pitch side looked low, but on our side dropped down into the area where people stood. The man got over and urged me to pass my boy, which I did, then it was my turn to climb – back then pencil skirts were in fashion and I was wearing one, there wasn’t time to fuss – I had to hitch it up to get over first the fence then the wall. The man who had encouraged and helped to pull me over then handed me my boy & said ‘ now run’ and that’s what I did, turning around once we got to the other side of the pitch. At this point the whole stand was on fire & my father was still in there. I’m not sure how long I was there but I wandered round in a daze, tightly holding onto my nephew who by now had woken up. Nothing seemed real, it all happened so fast. After a while I felt someone grab me, turned to see my father – he had been able to get out of a door from the room where they had been counting money, to the top outer side of valley parade. He then walked down Hollywell ash lane and was let I back into the stand on midland road to find me. After a hug we calmly walked out of the stand. Outside there were people hurt, but not enough ambulances, my dad volunteered to take 2 people with burns up to the Bri – back then you didn’t have chaos on the roads & so we calmly drove to the hospital, dropped the couple at Bri & then set off home. Nobody spoke, I don’t think we knew what to say. Pulling up outside our home, where my poor mum had been anxiously waiting to hear from us ( no phone contact then) my dad turned off the car, put his head on the steering wheel & started to cry – it was only one of two times in his life I ever saw him cry. I can’t imagine what was in his mind or what his experience at the back of the stand was, nor could I have imagined back then what my mum was thinking watching on the TV knowing her husband, daughter & grandson were there. Because we didn’t talk about it. My mum & dad have both passed away now, but the memories still remain for me & so on May 11th I will attend centenary square & pay respects to those who weren’t as lucky as my dad, my nephew & I. And my thoughts have always & will always remain with those brave people who suffered injury & loss that day. As for the man who helped us that day – I have never been able to say thank you to him direct, it’s a wish I would like, god bless him xxx

  10. A terrific, poignant and personal account of that fateful day from Andrew. I wasn’t there – we’d moved to Bedfordshire the year before but I still have vivid memories of watching the news flash of the stand ablaze and knowing my father was there and been unable to contact him. I called home and thankfully my mother had not seen the news so was oblivious to what was going on. Not wanting to worry her I didn’t say anything just asked her to get dad to call me when he got home. To my relief my dad called me at about 6-30 pm, we lived in Baildon and because of the confusion he had taken an age to get home.
    For some reason my dad had changed from our usual a vantage point in the Paddock in front of the main stand and watched the game from the Midland Road Stand. It turned out my dad’s brother, his son and several other cousins of mine were there that day but mercifully they all got out unscathed. My dad passed away 18 months ago and never spoke about the events he witnessed – he served in the RAF Regiment in North Africa and Italy in WW 2 and never spoke of those events either.
    My first ever experience of watching the mighty City was in that Stand – they used to open the gates in the second half so us youngsters could get in to get our first glimpse of the Bantams for free – I guess the adults thought we wouldn’t be able to watch a full game without getting bored in them days! How ironic that if the fire had started later into the second half many more, if not all, would have escaped because the gates would have been open. It seems that it was a disaster waiting to happen for several years but all the circumstances coincided together on May 11 1985 just before half time creating a fire that would have a devastating impact on many and changed forever football stadiums around the country.
    RIP to all those who lost there lives that day and to all City fans no longer with us – especially my son, sister and dad. CTID

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